(Alternate Title: The Problem of Private Parlance Pericopes)
There is an interesting objection to the reliability of the Gospels centered on the problem of private conversations. There are several interactions, the objection goes, wherein the details of the events are privy only to the participants of those events. The writers of the Gospels neither participated themselves in these events nor plausibly had access to witnesses of these event. Consider for example the conversation between Jesus and Pilate described in John 18.
Pilate entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”
- John 18:33-38 (NASB)
This is a pretty detailed account for a guy who was not there to hear the conversation. Could it be the case that the author of John wove this vignette from whole cloth? Before we jump to that conclusion, let’s survey the potential candidates for John’s information.
First, Pilate would have the information regarding this information. Is it likely, however, that he would willingly participate in an interview with the early Christians? Admittedly, I am not an expert in this area, but it does seem highly improbable that a man of Pilate’s stature and background would take time out of his day to tell some fisherman what he discussed with their murdered Messiah. I think we can safely assume Pilate was not John’s source.
Second, there may have been bystanders. The text is unclear as to how private this conversation actually was. The term Praetorium is sometimes translated as “palace” or “headquarters” indicating that this was a large building presumably occupied with many of Pilate’s servants as well as military personnel. It does seem slightly unlikely that Pilate would take a criminal into a completely private room without any security. Thus, it is throughly plausible that a member of Pilate’s court overheard the entirety of the conversation, later converted, and shared their story with the believing community. Over time, this permeated into the oral tradition and eventually became encapsulated in John’s Gospel. While this is less of a stretch than John interviewing Pilate, it does seem slightly ad hoc.
Lastly, we have Jesus. Jesus would certainly have the relevant information about the conversation seeing as he was a participant. Moreover, Jesus certainly would not have a problem talking to John or any of the other disciples about what happened. In other words, Jesus was not a hostile witness. He seems to be the perfect candidate. Why would he not be considered a legitimate option? Here, we reach the crux of the problem.
The problem that a sceptic is going to have with Jesus being the witness is that Jesus was killed after this conversation, before he could tell anybody else. But, notice how this is circular! The only reason that Jesus could be invalidated from being a witness would be if he did not rise from the dead. But, if he did not rise of the dead, then the Gospels are not telling a true story in the first place. In other words, to raise this objection to the veracity of the Gospels requires assuming the Gospels are not veracious in the first place.
But isn’t the Christian reasoning in a circle, too? Isn’t she assuming the Gospels are true to defend the Gospels are true? Here, we need to clarify that the objection is an internal critique.
You Christians have an inconsistency in your source documents. You claim they are eyewitness testimonies, but even on your own view, there isn’t an eyewitness to this conversation!
On this count, the Christian can retort that she has the explanatory resources to remain internally consistent. Since the Gospels were written after the resurrection of Christ and the 40 days of teaching described in Luke 24, Jesus is a legitimate source to fill in some of the gaps, particularly during the Passion Week events. Note that the scope of this response is limited to internal consistency.
What’s the point? It means that the “covert conversation challenge” is not an independent objection to the veracity of the Gospels; rather, it is dependent on an objection to the resurrection of Christ: whether that is a general philosophical argument against miracles or specific historical case.
Monothelitism is a Christological “heresy” which states that Christ has two natures (divine and human) and one will; this is in opposition to dyotheletism which states that Christ has two natures (divine and human) and two wills (divine and human). Why the scare quotes around heresy? First, monothelitism was indeed condemned in 681 at the Third Council of Constantinople making it a formal heresy. However, from a Protestant position, these Councils, while helpful, are not authoritative. This means there is the distinct possibility for the council-members to make an error and unintentionally condemn something that’s not actually contrary to Scripture (alternatively, they could affirm something that is contrary to Scripture).
Is monothelitism an actual heresy running contrary to the fundamental teaching of Scripture? I think that it depends on the relation between will and nature. The motivation for the Third Council of Constantinople was to combat monophysitism: the teaching that Christ has one nature. This certainly is an actual heresy, running contrary to the Scriptural teaching of the hypostatic union. The truths that need to be held in balance are that (1) Christ is one person and (2) he has two natures. This is where presuppositions come into play.
There are two broad camps when it comes to the topic of will: combatibilists and libertarians. Compatibilists generally describe the will as a property of one’s nature. An individual wills to do something out of what her nature is. On the other hand, libertarians generally describe the will as a property of the person. An individual wills to do something out of who she is and not out of what she is . Libertarians would say where there is a will, there is a person (inb4 “where there’s a will there’s a way”).
Now, suppose that you’re a compatibilist and you hear that Christ has two natures; it follows naturally that Christ has two wills. If He only has one will, that would mean He only has one nature which is heretical. Suppose instead you’re a libertarian and you hear that Christ is one person; it follows quite naturally that Christ has one will. If He has two wills, that would make Him two persons which is super heretical.
In other words, monothelitism is a heresy within the compatabilist framework and dyotheletism is a heresy in the libertarian framework. It seems to me that in order to maintain monothelitism as a true heresy, one would have to demonstrate that libertarianism is incoherent in its rendering of wills as properties of persons instead of natures.
 This is not to say that libertarians deny one’s nature playing into one’s decisions. Soft libertarians posit that one’s nature provides the range or spectrum of choices available to an individual in certain circumstances but does not ultimately arbitrate which decision is made. This is in contradistinction to compatibilism which typically posits that the range of decisions consists of one member. This entire paragraph is a broad generalization and I recognize the shortcomings of its brevity.
I’ve been catching up with the Dividing Line podcast. In the last 15 minutes of the March 11 episode, Dr. White picks back up with his commentary on the Unbelievable? episode with Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Paul Helm discussing Molinism. I do have a lot of respect for Dr. White, however, as I have mentioned in the past, there are a few mistakes that I think he makes when critiquing Molinism.
I recently outlined four essential truths about the Doctrine of the Trinity. In that article, I mentioned a few detractors of the Doctrine of the Trinity, one being ‘oneness Pentecostals’. One of the more popular incarnations of this group is the organization known as the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI). On the official website, there is a tract called “60 Questions on the Godhead” wherein the UPCI outlines 60 questions concerning the nature of God and defends a form of modalism. I will reproduce these questions and answer them in an effort to correct some of the misunderstandings in the tract.
“THE TRINITY” IS NOT IN THE BIBLE
That is to say, the word “Trinity” does not appear in the text of the Bible. The word is Latin based and is not used to describe God until around 180 AD by Theophilus of Antioch. However, this shouldn’t be of any major concern as there are many words that do not appear in the Bible, words like “rapture” and “Bible” for example. Nevertheless, we can use these words to intelligibly discuss Christian doctrine. The word “Trinity” is used to summarize the Scriptural data which testifies to the nature of God. So, using this textual fact as an argument against the validity of the Doctrine of the Trinity is rather silly.
THE TRINITY IS MONOTHEISTIC
Sometimes, the claim is made “The Trinity is wrong because the Bible says there is one God”. This is, however, not a contradiction. The Doctrine of the Trinity in its simplest form states
- There is one, and only one God
- The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God
- The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father
When someone says “The Bible says there is one God!” the Trinitarian will heartily agree as this is an affirmation of the first point. The distinction between the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity and say, the Islamic Doctrine of Tawhid or oneness Pentecostalism is not one of monotheism vs trithiesm; rather, it is the distinction between Unitarianism and Trinitarianism.
Unitarianism is the doctrine that the one God is one person while Trinitarianism is the doctrine that the one God is three persons. It gets to be confusing when artistic depictions of the Trinity are practically tri-theistic like this and this and this and this.